In this feature Phil Harris explains how he’s had to lock some old friends in the cupboard lest they tempt him to stray from the path. But they’ll be back…
My desire to spend 2014 exploring blues guitar in new ways – well, at least they’re new for me – has proved to be a real eye-opener. It’s taking quite a lot of discipline and determination to stay away from certain instruments and playing styles that I have loved for a long time – and still do. For example, I’ve been playing fast, distorted lead guitar since the late ’60s. Now when you’re a young man and you’re playing up and down the fretboard at a million miles an hour, it’s exciting. When you’re 58 and you play like that for an hour, you end up being out of breath and needing to take a valium.
But even if you know the effect it’s going to have on you, it’s still incredibly addictive. You can convince yourself that you’ll only blow like that for five minutes and then get on with something else… but once you start those fast runs then you get sucked in, and before you know it the normally mild-mannered Phil Harris is no longer in charge of proceedings.
1955 Gibson Les Paul Junior – This is a wonderful guitar, but it’s having to be locked away as its talents lie in delivering the dead opposite of what I’m trying to do this year. When I want to come back and make some fantastically over-the-top rock noises, this will be one of the first guitars I reach for
So the only way I can make sure that I don’t get distracted is to make sure the kind of gear that encourages that behaviour is put away. Given that my working life is spent with guitars, this is a lot easier said than done. I’m not ashamed to say that if I’ve needed to get certain guitars out for a hire or whatever, I’ve spent plenty of time staring a hole in the case in the same way a former smoker often looks longingly at a cigarette packet.
On the whole I haven’t had to pursue the same policy when it comes to listening to music. It’s more the case that I’ve started listening for different things, and then reinterpreting them in different ways (I’ve never been one for note-for-note copying).
For example, I used to play Gary Moore’s Midnight Blues live eight years ago in the Phil Harris Band, but my new version of it mostly consists of harmonics rather than chords. And when I play All Your Love from the ‘Beano’ album, instead of playing a rocky version I know, I play it incredibly clean as – to my ears – it makes it sound twice as beautiful. It’s a buzz to be able to listen to music I’ve known for years and to find new things to enjoy. It’s all about finding your own way, rather than marking yourself against others.
1962 Echoplex – My love of using this Echoplex in a staggered fashion is a hard one to break, but – like using things like phasers and chorus pedals – it’s going to have to stop for now. At the moment, all I really need is the guitar’s natural tone, and maybe the odd bit of clean boost
That lesson took me a long time to learn: I’ve been guilty in the past of making sure everyone in the room knew how good I was – and, preferably, how much better I was than them… even at informal jam sessions just meant to be a bit of fun. I’m finally over that now and have developed a greater understanding of the importance of feel and vibe when it comes to playing.
1963 VOX AC15 – This Vox, and my Marshalls, are fantastic ‘hooligan’ amps. That means they’re great for turning up so that you and the listeners lose the first three layers of your skin and a fair bit of bone marrow – in a good way. Wonderful things, but certainly not suitable for the musical path I’m on at the minute
However, I’ve also come to realise that certain things are going to have to wait for another lifetime. I’ve always been proud of the fact that I was self-taught, but I thought that by now I’d have a better understanding of things such as music theory. Not a chance. When I’ve played with friends who are relative novices they’ve ended up telling me what scales I’ve been using, because I haven’t a clue! It’s not going to spoil my fun, though…
1971 Martin 000-28 – This guitar is one of the family, never mind part of my guitar collection, but it doesn’t work for me right now because, bizarrely, it’s too good. I’ve been drawn to playing a resonator when playing unplugged in recent times. I don’t use a slide, and fit it with 0.011″ gauge strings so you can still shift them around as you can on an electric. It’s also a wooden-body resonator, so where you play it near the neck really changes the tone. It’s great for getting a traditional blues sound that works for me
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1960s Danelecto Longhorn – When I was playing fast lead stuff I’d play soul bass afterwards to calm myself down. Now I’m playing straight blues bass, which is also great for suggesting riffs to transfer over to guitar – and for that, this nifty Danelectro is far too fiddly-diddly for the job